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September 2013

Life & Labors: A Fortuitous Stop

Mary Gaylord writes,

In those early days our nearest route to Muscatine, Davenport and some other points, was by way of Flint Creek and the twenty-mile prairie.  On passing out of the belt of timber on the creek, we entered this prairie, which in 1841 and '42 had not been encroached upon by any human habitation.  It was not level, but gently undulating, with ravines in which were often found living springs.  This prairie, like many others, was clothed with the most luxuriant verdure, but absolutely treeless.  On its northern boundary was a fine natural park of many acres, filled with a beautiful growth of the native trees of Iowa.  This was called "Virginia Grove."  After the long ride of twenty miles it was most refreshing to reach this grove at night-fall, and find a pleasant-looking home nestled among the trees where we could ask for entertainment.  We had been in the house but a short time on our first visit, when Mrs. Brown, the wife and mother, inquired if Mr. Gaylord was a clergyman.  On receiving an affirmative answer her eyes filled with tears and she said, "It is three years since I have seen a minister of the gospel, and my boys are growing up with no church or Sabbath school to help them into the right way."  At night and in the morning the Bible was brought and the family called together for worship.  When money was proferred for the entertainment on leaving, they refused to accept it, saying, "All we ask of you is to come again."  Such experiences as this stimulated and encouraged the workers of those early days.

Life & Labors: On the founding of Grinnell College

Mrs. Gaylord reports that though the original band of young ministers who came west to Iowa intended to form a college, their missionary labors had not yet allowed time to establish one.  When a new cohort of ministers arrived, then the group was able to move forward.  On March 12, 1844 they held an organizing meeting, and on April 15 formed the "Iowa College Association."  It was two years later before a first board of  twelve trustees was elected, and Rev. Gaylord was included; he was also on the Committee on Charter.  He served on the college board until 1855, when he moved to Omaha.  She writes, "He was always careful to attend the meetings of the Board, often taking the trip on horseback, a distance of eighty miles."

The first building was erected in Davenport in 1847-8.  The college was later moved to Grinnell, Iowa.  She writes,

It made slow progress at first, but in a few years entered upon a career of sure and steady growth, which continued until its buildings were hurled to destruction by the terrible cyclone of June, 1882.  But the munificent gifts of a generous public soon restored it to more than its former completeness and beauty, and it is now a noble institution doing a great and noble work.

A Story to Tell

Storytelling is essential.  For determining who we are, where we come from, and what has happened.  For creating community and identity.  For learning the virtue and developing character.  For making sense of our experience.

And yet for most of the last year I have not told the story of our life as Michael and I attempted to foster-to-adopt a young man. 

I did not tell the story for many reasons:

  • The ACLU asked us not to for it would complicate their efforts
  • Once we had the license we  wanted to remain under the radar, because our goal here was very personal--to have a family--not to bring about societal change
  • The child has privacy rights which must be respected
  • Sometimes when it hurt it was too fresh to share

But now I think I can tell the story, though primarily for the third reason listed above, details will be left out.  Last year in the excitement of taking steps to pursue chidren, Michael and I created a separate blog, Wannabe Dad's in the Big O.  Through that blog, I will begin telling the story.  It begins, "We had a son."

Swan Song

The Forsyte Saga: Swan Song (A Modern Comedy #3)The Forsyte Saga: Swan Song by John Galsworthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Forsyte family returns for this sixth story (out of nine), and it was one of my favourites yet. Finally Jon returns to England (with his wife Anne) and must encounter Fleur, his young love. This is the story of that encounter and what results.

Fleur is spoiled. Over the last two novels we've found her more endearing and understandable. This time she struggles over her feelings for her first love and her relationship with her wonderful husband Michael Mont (who is probably the very best person in this saga).

Fleur's father Soames must also struggle as he observes the danger signs. He has unconditional love for his daughter, though he is aware how this has spoiled her. He is also taking stock of his life, his family origins, his art collection. The most moving chapters of the book are center on Soames, who is, of course, the villain in this saga for what he did to his first wife Irene back in volume one.

Galsworthy writes so beautifully. A scene in which Soames returns to the oceanfront land of his ancestors is evocative and mesmerizing.

He also writes powerfully yet with subtlety -- the climax, of which I won't give details. Except to say that I cried.

The Saga could end here for me. I'm curious as to what will transpire in the final trilogy, which I don't yet own. But I may wait a while before taking it up.

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On page 99 a word jumped out at me. A strange word. An evocative word. One that shaped my reading of the entire rest of the novel. That word was "tohubohu."

The tohu vohu is the formless void at the beginning of Genesis 1. In other words, what existed before the Creation, before God's word was uttered. It is chaos. And in the Hebrew Scriptures there is this fear that chaos will re-emerge (the Deluge is one instance of this). Jewish monotheism denied the chaos any power, agency, or divinity (she is no Tiamat the dragon). Instead, God's sovereign power and mercy and the order of the creation keep chaos restrained (though Job indicates that God delights in playing with the forces of chaos like Behemoth and Leviathan).

Never had I encountered this Hebrew phrase as a single word used in English writing. Did Chabon create this use of it?

It appears on page 99 when he is introducing the Verbovers -- the Hasidic sect which runs the mafia in Sitka. But first, some background.

In 1940 Harold Ickes suggested that the Jews of Europe, threatened by the Nazis, be allowed to settle in Alaska. Chabon cleverly joins the group of novelists writing in counterfactual worlds (Fatherland, The Plot Against America, etc.) by imagining what might have happened had this scenario played out. No Holocaust. No modern state of Israel. Instead a Jewish homeland in Alaska.

This novel is sent in the early 21st century. It is the eve of Reversion, when this Jewish enclave will revert to the State of Alaska and all the Jews living therein must either gain permanent residency in the US (which is limiting how many can) or relocate elsewhere. America has also elected an evangelical president who isn't interested in granting permanent status to the Sitka Jews; he has other plans.

In the midst of this context, there is a murder in the fleabag motel where Detective Meyer Landsman now lives after his divorce and subsequent personal and professional decline. Much like a classic detective story, he pursues the threads of evidence and explores all the seedy and corrupt sides of the world he inhabits.

Which leads him to the enclave of the Verbovers (the Hasidic mafia), where Chabon uses this intriguing word. We read, "He [the Verbover rebbe] built a criminal empire that profited on the meaningless tohubohu beyond the theoretical walls, on beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all."

I believe one theme of this novel is the struggle to keep chaos -- the formless void, the tohubohu -- at bay.

This was affirmed on pages 356-7 when, near the climax, Berko Shemets, Landsman's partner and half-Jew, half-Indian cousin, is described as follows, "He seems to have something important that he wants to express, a name, a spell, an equation that can bend time or unknit the strings of the world. Or maybe he's trying to keep from coming unknit himself."

Chabon has taken a clever conceit, used it to tell a good (but not great) story, all the while actually inviting us to consider this most profound set of questions. A set of questions that arise from one of the most basic stories of the Western tradition--the Creation. Those questions include: Is God in control? Will chaos defeat order and structure? Does history fulfill any purpose? Do our lives have meaning? Does meaning even exist? Is all for naught? Can we redeem our lives? Can we even hold them together in some coherence? How should we, then, live?

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American Family

This last weekend Michael, our foster son, and I were in Minneapolis attending the funeral of Michael's grandmother Marion Cich.

Marion was of German ancestry.  Her husband Ted was Polish.  They were both Roman Catholic.  They raised a typical, mid-twentieth century, midwestern family.  Their family photos could stand for an entire generation.

But go out a few more generations.  One son married a woman from Finland.  Another married a Filipina.  She brought to the family a son who was half Chinese.

One granddaughter is dating an almost seven foot tall African-American ball player.  Another grandson is gay and married with a husband.

One great-granddaughter is dating a young man of Guatemalan descent.  Another great-grandson is a member of the Ponca tribe.

And sitting there I realize that despite all our problems as a country and all the areas in which we still have so much work to do, we have achieved something wonderful in the diversity of our families, as this very typical, midwestern family reveals.